Friday, 31 August 2018

Ontario Off Stage

by Brandon Moore, Community Theatre and Communications Manager

Conversation Starters

David Parry receiving our Michael Spence Award in 2017

Behind the Scenes at Ontario’s Theatres


In Case You Missed It

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Be Part of Our Bowl-a-Thon!

Come be part of one of our teams at our 3rd Annual Bowl-a-Thon in support of Theatre Ontario.

Our Bowl-a-Thon will be held on Saturday, September 15th from 4pm to 6pm at the air-conditioned Bathurst Bowlerama.

Our goal is to raise funds to support the operation of our core programs and services, which help theatre artists develop their talent and careers, while fostering healthy and vibrant theatre communities across the province.

Show your support and join us to help meet our $5,000 fundraising goal!

Learn more about Theatre Ontario’s Bowl-a-Thon

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Browsing Our Bulletin Board

Upcoming opportunities from Theatre Ontario, from our members, and from other arts service organizations.

Coming Up from Theatre Ontario

Intimacy for the Stage workshop
at Theatre Ontario
Check out all of our upcoming Career Stream and Creator Stream workshops.

Upcoming on The Bulletin Board

  • Deadline to apply for Ontario Arts Council’s Indigenous Artists in Communities and Schools Projects is today.
  • Deadline to register for the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s Capital Grants program is today.
  • Deadline to register for George F. Walker’s next Acting Workshop series is September 1.
  • The next Theatre by the Bay "Barrie Theatre Lab" is on September 3.
  • Deadline for submissions of scripts and proposals for Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in Toronto is September 5.

New on The Bulletin Board

  • The National Theatre School invites submissions for their Artistic Leadership Residencies, for artists with at least 8 years of professional practice and be on a trajectory to assume the role of Artistic Director in the near future. The application deadline is September 11.

Check out these items, and other postings from our members.
Theatre Ontario individual members can also access Auditions, Job Postings and Discount Ticket Offers on our Theatre Ontario Individual Member Resources on our website

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Join Us at Emergence 2.0: Advocating for Yourself

The 2018 Theatre Ontario Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) is excited to be presenting Emergence 2.0 on October 15, 2018.

In partnership with the Siminovitch Prize, the YAC is excited to bring a day focused on advocacy and mentorship for youth. During the afternoon, young artists from across Ontario are invited to meet other youth in theatre and engage in discussion. 

What is Emergence 2.0?  

Emergence 2.0 is a two-part event that will consist of the following: 
  1. Advocating for Yourself: an open panel discussion for emerging artists
  2. Coffee Dates: one-on-one mentorship coffee sessions with an artist

Monday, 27 August 2018

ONstage Openings for the week of August 27

ONstage Now Playing in Southwestern Ontario
The Birds and The Bees at
Drayton Entertainment: Huron Country Playhouse (Grand Bend)
Thomas Duplessie, Stacy Smith
Author Mark Crawford, Director Marti Maraden,
Set Designer Samantha Burson, Costume Designer Rebecca Wolsley,
Lighting Designer Davida Tkach. Photographer: Liisa Steinwedel.
This week’s openings on Ontario’s stages

In Toronto

Aug. 29, Sisters at Soulpepper Theatre [currently in previews]

For all the theatre playing across Ontario, visit Theatre Ontario’s ONstage theatre listings on our website

Friday, 24 August 2018

Ontario Off Stage

Alastair Forbes and Sophia Fabiilli in the Thousand
Islands Playhouse production of The Canadian.
Photo by Randy deKleine-Stimpson
by Brandon Moore, Community Theatre and Communications Manager

Conversation Starters

Behind the Scenes at Ontario’s Theatres


In Case You Missed It

You can also receive news from Theatre Ontario every month by email. Our archives are online and the August issue is now available.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Today we feature four stories:
The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 1, 2018.

Learn more about Theatre Ontario's Professional Theatre Training Program

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Julia Tribe

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Julia Tribe training in community-engaged theatre and performing arts with Ruth Howard at Jumblies Theatre in Toronto

(July 20, 2018)  At this halfway point of my training, I feel extremely lucky to have experienced such a broad range of community arts engagement. Ruth Howard and the leaders of Jumblies offshoot companies have offered me amazing opportunities to observe and participate in their varied programming, with people of diverse ages, abilities and cultural backgrounds: Leah Houston AD of MABELLEarts, has welcomed me to participate as a guest artist and co-facilitator, in activities that support and realise the programming for their Iftar Nights Ceremonies; Beth Helmers AD of Community Arts Guild, has welcomed me to observe and participate in their new project and gallery show, Scarborough Transformations; Michael Burtt AD of Making Room, has welcomed me to participate and add my own artistic integrity to their celebration and showcase of Weaving Homes at Parkdale Activity - Recreation Centre (PARC); and Elizabeth Rucher AD of Arts4all, has welcomed me to discuss with her, programing and approach to community arts in the communities she serves.

These dynamic leaders have supported me through a collaborative lens, helping me explore and find playful forms to deconstruct and reconstruct the creative principle of community arts engagement. Their rich expertise and overlapping stories, creating a complementary cohesion for my learning.

Phase I

Community Choir

To begin I joined the Gather Round Singers, Community Choir, led by choral director Shifra Cooper, community artist and assistant artistic director  of MABELLEarts. This choir is a very important part of all music-driven interdisciplinary work that Jumblies and offshoot companies engages in. The choir has taught me to soften my gaze, sensitize my ears and open my breath to the collaborative voice. During the months of May to July we rehearse Tuesday nights at Church of Epiphany and St. Marks Church and performed  together at most celebratory occasions of Ground Floor, Making Room and MABELLEarts.


Next I became involved MABELLEarts during preparation and celebration of their annual Iftar Nights at Mabelle Park in West Etobicoke. This event is an inter-cultural ritual celebration spanning the holy month of Ramadan, where the Mabelle neighbours and artists invite community to pass the hours leading to sunset with art-making, songs, gardening, and a cooking-fire. The event’s programming stretches out over many months prior Iftar, holding art making activities, workshops and food preparation by the Mabelle Ladies Cooking Circle.

My time with MABELLEarts was over 4 weeks - May 17th to June 7th, beginning in an observatory role and then growing into a full collaborative artist and co-facilitator. I worked with lead artist, volunteers and community members of all ages. Over this busy weeks we created precision lanterns, weaving and wrapping branches, and creating amazing installations to adorned the Mabelle Park trees. Leah’s generous style of leadership, brought us all together, in a slightly chaotic but very cohesive environment, where we created everything that needed to get done. This experience forged a new appreciation for all things deeply collaborative.

“I see the art of hospitality as a great way of integrating virtuosity and participation” - Leah Houston

The magical illumination of Iftar Night against
community housing, Mabelle Park
Lanterns lighting up the way!

Community Art Guild

On the other side of town was the Community Art Guild, making art of all sorts with people in East Scarborough. I was invited by Beth Helmer to come out and participate in their programming during May and June. As this was in competition with my MABELLEarts schedule, I was only able to attend a few afternoons and evening. Participating in their Choir rehearsal, weaving and puppetry workshops, and volunteer one day in their interactive gallery show “Scarborough Transformations,” part of Toronto’s cultural Open Door weekend. All these samplings I enjoyed immensely, within it diverse communities of Tamil seniors, children, youth and adults of all ages and cultural background.

It seemed Beth’s approach to community arts engagement was more in keeping with my own. Possibly due to our similar backgrounds, deeply rooted in devised theatre and new work development, or maybe as we share a mutual love for multidisciplinary story creations? Whatever it was, I fully appreciated her and the tranquil setting of Cedar Ridge Creative less frantic then Mabelle Park!

I also appreciated the lengthy development time that she and her lead artist: Sonja Rainey and Ange Loft had cultivated during the exploratory stages of development on their new project “Scarborough Transformations.” They were very busy when I visited, holding workshops on and off site, through outreach in schools and other cultural community centers, in and around the Scarborough area. The Guild’s mandate “To make art making  accessible to all!” seemed alive and well, in all they did. The transformation theme about finding ways to explore the potential of  puppetry through shadow puppets, giant ice age creatures and tiny puppet stages telling stories of Scarborough’s past, present and future… So exciting!

Tiny puppet stages!
My Ravon made on Open Doors Weekend!

Giant ice age creatures!

The Guild, like Jumblies, seems to understand implicitly the importance for experimentation when conceiving such new collaborative works. Giving room for the unexpected to pop up and be shaped through our imaginative dreams. I find this a great attractor always and especially at this time of my own transformation: wanting to give more importance to content than product. I observe the Guild as a place of grace, honouring the importance of lengthy art-based exploration to nurture both the artists and the community it serves. Beth and her staff even served tea in real tea cups and food in between activities!

Another appreciation I wish to note, is the Guild’s careful and creative directional documents, particularly beautiful in their style of  graphic illustration and playful ways they encouraged you through the art making process.... Making everything extremely accessible to all!

Showing delightful visual documents!

Marking Room

My final community arts engagement was with Michael Burtt at Making Room, in the neighbourhood of Parkdale in the West End of Toronto. This was a short but very intense experience from June 11th to 29th, helping mount a Celebration Showcase called “Weaving Homes.” This project shared the result of six months of community arts workshops exploring the journeys: What did we leave behind? What did we find along the way? What is home? The workshops were held with seniors, school kids, PARC members and Making Room members and artists, creating art, sharing stories, making shadow puppet shows and creating an audio installations. The concept of home inside and out, was also reflected through the teaching of the ancient Tibetan Lhama Thong Tong Gyalpoz, with special support from the Tibetan community.

Making Room explores all their work through a radically-inclusive, interdisciplinary arts-based exploration, bringing people and community together through art-making. By making personal connections through the doing and making of art, moving closer to an inner home. In this frame of collaborative inclusion my own relationship to “home” was therefore on the art-making ‘table’ as well! My present state of being homeless I shared with the group, and my desire to embrace a more international rapport with my artistic identity. Michael valued the relationship I had with the project, while hoping my design background would bring a complimentary mix to the creative team of artist, volunteer, and PARC community. He asked that I bring a visual, tactile and performative cohesion to the project’s staging, while creating a home to house all the art-making elements that were being created. Our approach became a type of overhead installation and performative landscape, with shadow screen for the puppetry show in the center… A creative 3D neighborhood to be Installed in less than a day, June 29th at PARC!

This partnership with Making Room was over a three-week period and met three days a week. On Wednesdays, Michael would lead us through a morning meditation and then in the afternoon industriously weave and braid and create. On Thursdays, in morning we would have a cheek-in and share, then strategize to see what needed to get done followed by another busy art-making afternoon. On Fridays, we would cheek-in again, then some would go off to workshops and others would hold a community art drop-in at PARC. This weaving of sharing, meditation, and art-making made me think of how close art and ritual is and how great it is to created spaces, where everybody feels supported and united in a common goal.

I found the Fridays afternoons at PARC, a hub of activity, ripe with chance encounters and engagement! We offered an open framework, where people passing through might indirectly enter into art activities or on an ongoing going basis for those who felt an ease at expressing themselves and the art medium at hand. I found working with this community required a divided focus, of one-on-one and group interaction. Finding presence and responsiveness engagement key, with self-care and mutual respect a very important part. During these drop- ins, I drew from my own expressive art therapy training and love of the playful. PARC and its community richly layers with creativity offering alternative ways to express seen and be heard...

Finger Weaving

How will we bridge our home to home?


My Home is in the trees.
Mine is round with bright doorways.

PARC Drop-in
Unexpected surprises


Throughout Phase I, I tried to meet Ruth on a weekly basis, sharing what I was learning, and to get her input while I shaped my next week's activities. Sometimes this worked and other times it was “catch as can,” with a phone chat or email. I never felt a lack of support and we always found time to eventually connection.

I also tried attending Jumblies company meetings and cultivate rapport with artists affiliated with their programming. Participating in workshops and sometimes arranging to meet outside of them to chat and share experiences.  Supporting this community of young, old and in-between was and is an important part of my learning in this collaborative environment.

The following Jumblies workshop I participated in:
Beading and Medallions / Facilitators - Jamie Oshkabewisns and Ashley Riley
Ceramics / Facilitator - Parker Dirks
Harassment in Community Theatre / Facilitator - Nadia Bello
Composing Community Workshop with Toronto Creative Music Centre / Facilitator - Ruth Howard and other lead artists

Another highlight is having access to wonderful lead and associate artists: Sonja Rainey, a community-engaged installation artist and theatre designer; Alejandra Nunez, musician and composer; and Lillia Leon, dancer and choreographer. Our growing rapport, exploring our relationships with community artist and its intersectionality with theatre. I hope in the future we will find performative ways to further benefit artists and community together.

Phase I - Summary

It has been amazing opportunity; nurturing an ease in my collaborative presence and expansion in my ability to facilitate community art engagement, within varied communities of diverse ages, experiences, cultural distinctions, and languages. In each new community I have worked and played with, I feel I have grown by using art-making as a way to learn, shape and appreciate each other’s distinct and complex stories.

Phase II - Planning

As I consider my next phase of my PTTP mentorship, Ruth and I have discussed the possibility of my facilitation on three week-long workshops at the offshoot companies. These workshops could run simultaneously or independently of one another during September and/or October, with a possible final week in Jumblies Ground Floor programming, or an opportunity to co-facilitated with Ruth? As to the nature of these workshops, they are yet to be determined, but once I hear back from each offshoot leader, I will start to explore some ideas I have in mind.

My goal is to take a more creative leadership role, engaging in partnerships through self-directed initiatives that requires me to plan and shape workshop themes while staying responsive to each distinct community’s needs. To support this planning, I am giving myself a week in mid-August to just make art and explore where I am in my learning. This will take the form of an interactive installation piece, where I can deconstruct and reconstruct my thoughts, ideas and or impressions in the flexible framework. As a theatre designer this is what I do, I play with ideas through shapes in space, enhanced by colour and texture... respecting abstraction as a wise voice of aesthetic inquiry, where unexpected discoveries can find form in alternative ways. I will do this at the Jumblies the Ground Floor Studio, the week of August 20th to 26th. Taking all I learnt from Phase I into the realm of liminal space where I can dream and see things a new.

Ground Floor

Related Reading:

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 1, 2018.

Learn more about Theatre Ontario's Professional Theatre Training Program

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Thomas Alderson

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Thomas Alderson begins training in directing with Ashlie Corcoran at Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver BC

(July 24, 2018)  As I type this, I am getting excited to begin my journey with Ashlie Corcoran at the Arts Club in Vancouver. I had the privilege of working with her as a performer at the Citadel Theatre, and greatly admired her as a leader. I am so thankful that this opportunity to learn from her as an assistant director has transpired.

My main hope from this experience is to learn about the effective and positive ways directors communicate with their colleagues. I am flying to Vancouver in a week, prior to the beginning of rehearsal, which is the part I am most excited about. I have been graciously invited to spend some preparatory time with the stage management and production management teams. I look forward to gaining more in-depth insights into the director/production team relationship. What are the most effective ways to communicate? What does the production manager value in a great director? How does a director's vision start to take physical shape?

I then will spend the time in rehearsal shadowing Ashlie as she navigates her way through the play with the cast. I am excited to have the opportunity to discuss with Ashlie what I observe in the room, as she has already created an open line of communication with me.

I am also looking forward to any other surprises that come my way :)

I hope to be able to contribute my eye as an emerging director and act as a sounding board for team members to bounce ideas off.

Beyond that, I simply hope to be helpful in any way I can. Completely willing to run all the errands!!!

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 1, 2018.

Learn more about Theatre Ontario's Professional Theatre Training Program

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Samyuktha Punthambekar

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Samyuktha Punthambekar trained in arts management with Mitchell Marcus at Musical Stage Company in Toronto

(August 15, 2018)  The mentorship with Mitchell Marcus and Musical Stage Company has been one the best in my career so far. I could not have hoped and asked for such a fulfilling and thorough mentorship.

Mitchell Marcus, in my opinion, is one of the finest mentors that the Toronto Arts community has. During my time at The Musical Stage Company, Mitchell spent a lot of time with me in understanding my space, the background where I come from as well my strengths and weaknesses. He also offered a keen listening ear when I spoke to him about the systemic challenges that are currently affecting our community. Mitchell not only offered strong suggestions, but was also a solid support and acknowledged these challenges. This to me was extremely refreshing and assuring, especially coming from a leader.

I was given full freedom to tailor my mentorship in the direction that solely benefitted me and my growth. There were very specific areas that I identified and felt I needed to develop on. Mitchell and his team offered their unconditional support and were never hesitant in answering any of my questions. The assignments/projects that I was tasked with were all ‘real-life’ which resulted in me gaining invaluable experience. Some of the projects that I got to work on were The Living Arts Centre’s 2018/19 season launch, creating draft contracts for Equity, and work as a Front of House Manager for Dr. Silver (which was staged in partnership with Luminato and The National Arts Centre). I also got to be a part of a fundraising event, where Board members of the company were also present. One of the areas which I am deeply passionate about is fundraising and grants. This event gave me first-hand experience in how an event of this magnitude was managed so efficiently and with great success.

As an emerging arts manager and leader, given the constraints of a new immigrant with no family support, it is vitally important for my career at this point to take on several projects. Mitchell was extremely accommodating in understanding this aspect and allowed a great sense of flexibility. This in turn, allowed me to interview with a few arts organizations and I was eventually able to secure a part-time opportunity, after four years due to systemic barriers, with Jaberi Dance Theatre as an Administrative Producer.

This mentorship has re-engineered my purpose in the arts as an emerging arts leader and a strong advocate for inclusive practice to find solutions for the gaps and systemic barriers. It has also enhanced my expertise to identify and clearly communicate, that is largely catering towards new immigrants' needs and requirements, and slowly identifying my interests and true calling in arts management. This for me has been the greatest strength, wealth and peace of mind ever since I moved to Canada in 2011. The Musical Stage Company is an organization that is not just producing amazing new musicals but is doing it with a clear mandate for supporting artistic works—with a deep social relevance cause. Mitchell Marcus is one of the few leaders, who supports and is upfront about an important cause such as inclusive practice at staff, leadership and board levels in arts organizations. I would highly recommend mentoring under him and the Musical Stage Company for any POC, especially new immigrant POCs.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Theatre Ontario and the PTTP grant jury for this incredible opportunity. I have a great amount of respect and love for Musical Stage Company and the work it creates. This has propelled me to think about a deeper community engagement for Musical Stage’s productions with a view to reach a wider and more diverse audience—especially with the new immigrant community. I am of the firm belief that if an organization invests in a new immigrant’s development during their initial stages, the dividends will certainly be tremendous.

I also want to sincerely thank Mitchell Marcus and the Musical Stage Company for mentoring me and giving me renewed energy to make a difference in the arts community!

Related Reading:

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 1, 2018.

Learn more about Theatre Ontario's Professional Theatre Training Program

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: ted witzel

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

ted witzel trained in artistic direction with antoni cimolino at the stratford festival

august 16, 2018

pleasure, populism, & the public // thoughts on the future of arts institutions with twenty pictures of swans


ted is currently working as assistant artistic director at the stratford festival with support from the metcalf foundation, theatre ontario, and the chalmers foundation.  this article started as an interim report for theatre ontario and then it ballooned into its current state.

it should be acknowledged first and foremost that this piece owes a great debt to diane ragsdale, whose work brendan healy first pointed me toward. as much as anything, this is an attempt to process some of the thoughts i've had in response to her work.

because the piece got so long i thought it would be helpful if i included some nice pictures of waterfowl to keep your visual interest.


1. the frightening question of fun

of all the strange situations i didn’t know i’d find myself in as a practicing artist, this one ranked among the strangest.

—and i’ve been in some strange ones: changing into a dance belt behind a parked car in trinity bellwoods park.  wandering onstage in a 1000-seat theatre in stuttgart with pizza dough draped on my face, doing my best to speak two sentences of german in a russian accent. sitting in the crypt of a ruined monastery between a bucket of plastic fish and a giant latin tablet, zipped up to my neck in a burlap sack, waiting for my entrance.  perfecting a recipe for edible stage placenta at midnight in the workshop of a theatre in milan (i’m happy to share if anyone needs help—it hinges on a mix of grape and cherry jell-o).—

but a few weeks ago, i found myself sitting at my desk late at night, alone in the director’s office of one of the largest theatre institutions in canada, preparing for the next morning’s strategic planning session.  i was squinting at my screen scrutinizing a definition of the word

“of course the definition of ‘fun’ is subjective for every individual, and what may be authentically ‘fun’ for one organization may not make sense for another ...”

the definition was supplied to help contextualize some stats from culture track’s first canadian study (pdf). (culture track is an american-based cultural innovation engine that has been collecting data on cultural engagement since 2001).

maybe i was reading too deep into it, but the report seems as though it’s trying to reassure readers that “fun” is not as terrible as it sounds.  you see, counter-intuitive though it may seem, 81% of canadian cultural attendees rank “fun” as their top reason for engaging with culture in the first place. 

maybe the most absurd part of it is that i’ve been reading so many cultural policy reports and audience studies lately that it took me some time to actually recognize the absurdity of an artist sitting alone in a dark office trying to understand what a cultural think tank defined as “fun.”


2. down the sideroads

actually, this has been one of the most exciting aspects of the work i’ve been doing at stratford. 

it’s been a varied portfolio: supporting the day-to-day goings-on in the directors’ office, helping with programming for next season, and collaborating with several others in management to plan the launch of the new theatre in a couple years.  but the real gift of coming to the festival this year has been being invited into the strategic planning process the festival is undertaking.

when most artists think about artistic direction, we think of the day-to-day work and the curation.  the part of the role we tend to think less of is long-term strategic visioning.  as artists working for institutions, we often see the way organizations manifest themselves and their work as having to do with an aesthetic, curatorial taste, personal philosophy, or maybe evolving as natural responses to shifts in a broader landscape, rather than a result of strategic processes. 

the luxury of my role at stratford is that it has never existed before.  i’m not directly necessary, which has given me the opportunity to be quite useful (i hope).  among my other tasks, i also get to be something of a scout for the company—the festival keeps barreling down the highway, as theatres on production schedules must, but i have the freedom to wander down sideroads and report back about what i find, and offer it into the mix of strategic thinking. and at the same time, i benefit from participating in the workings of a very well-oiled machine that has created efficient processes through 70 years of R&D. 


3. canada's audience problem

i have been interested in artistic direction for a long time.  at first, i think it was primarily an attraction to the glamorous aspects of programming and curation that attracted me.  i also had a sense that i had a good enough mind for systems to cope with the more unglamorous aspects of running a building like toilet-cleaning schedules.  (you can read lyn gardner’s recent interviews about garbage disposal with several british ADs here).

but what has recently made it feel urgent for me to become involved in organizational leadership is my growing conviction that arts organizations, and by extension the work they/we produce, will fade into irrelevance and extinction if we continue to do “business as usual,”* but that our cultural moment contains a real opportunity to reverse this trend.

last year while in berlin i wrote a piece for buddies’ blog about canadian theatre’s audience problem.  i looked at radical democratization, shifting cultural values, and how major arts institutions are likely to go the way of sears if we don’t react to the a massive paradigm shift digitization has caused in our relationship to culture, art, and liveness.  it owed a great debt to a killer keynote speech given by dr. steven tepper at zocalo public square.

in a way, it’s this audience problem that continues to pull me away from canada at times, and also pulls me back. 

i moved to berlin (again) a few years ago because i wanted to be in a city where the theatres were vital, well-attended, and valued civic institutions.  where it felt like people looked to their theatres as a place to ask critical questions of their culture, and who they wanted to be as a people.  not only that—but people want to be there.  not because they feel like it will make them better people, but because going to the theatre is pleasurable.  it’s something they’d legitimately consider on a saturday night when they want to have fun.  it’s a relief to be somewhere where artists are valued, and even contracted as a kind of civil servant.

and i keep coming back to canada because i feel deeply convinced that some aspect of this must be possible here.  and i feel like the skills and experiences i’ve acquired over the years could be put to service of achieving that.  because i don’t think we canadians as a whole have quite sorted out our civic relationship to arts and culture, but that it is possible for art to be essential to how we understand ourselves, in an active and ongoing way.  that this could be a pleasurable exchange.  that we might actually be able to reposition ourselves as fun, rather than a moral obligation, or a pastime of elites. 

* i’m using “business as usual” as an intentionally generalist catch-all for the philosophies, values, and structures that have governed how not-for-profit benchmark arts institutions have operated since the end of the last world war, and in particular in the last 40-some-odd years.
[the “benchmark arts” being the traditional ‘high arts’ (i really don’t like that ‘high’ designation): theatre, opera, museums, galleries, ballet & dance.  not my definition, i’m just borrowing it.  generally speaking these are the arts that suffer the most from people’s desire to have ‘fun.’]


4.  audience barriers

so when did the arts stop being ‘fun’?

i have spent a lot of time on this question.  i’ve tried to sift through western history looking for the moment when the arts community made the fatal mistake that has led to the present moment, where we’ve** found ourselves shouting into an echoing void telling an increasingly unhearing public that they don’t know what’s good for them.

it’s hard to parse, but the shortest version of how i see it has to do with a gradual attempt on the part of artists to elevate the importance and social function of our work, and the social capital earned through consuming it, to the point where it has become viewed as a vaguely moral obligation, irrelevant to the daily experiences of most people. 

between 2006-2012, the wallace foundation provided funding to over 50 arts organizations to conduct audience building experiments with dedicated resources.  in a summary study, the road to results (pdf), most of the organizations reported that the biggest barriers they had to overcome to reach new audiences were indifference, unfamiliarity, and a perception of the organization / work as elitist.

it’s maybe not a popular view, but i have a growing hunch that we artists are historically at least partly responsible for having created this perception of elitism.  not only in how we have cultivated the social and economic value of what we do, but also the sociological value of the arts.

** by “we” in this case i’m talking most specifically about the north american institutional arts sector.  there’s a variety of historic / political / sociological / cultural factors that are common between the US and canada that other arts sectors don’t share.


5. valuing the arts

since modernity, artists (and gradually, the ‘arts sector’) have been in the business of arguing for the value of what we do.  initially it was easier—we were trending high as ‘innovative’ in the renaissance, when thriving cultural life emerged as a sign of a powerful state (alongside military might, wealth, and piety).  royal patronage became standard practice, and supporting the most in-demand artists became a status symbol.  the groundwork for what became publicly funded cultural institutions was laid through the renaissance and enlightenment, and liberal humanism simply took over responsibility for these under a new regime, after much decapitating and defenestrating across europe. 

in colonized ‘north america,’ settlers started from scratch (after widespread and brutal violence directed toward eradicating any pre-existing culture settlers encountered).  rather than taking over institutions from an old regime, new ones would have to be consciously constructed.  europeans settled this continent primary under the ideologies of protestantism and nascent global capitalism, and pouring money into extravagant cultural centres wasn’t a high priority.  the arts have never had a particularly efficient return-on-investment.  and they were full of damnable sinners.

(liberal democracy isn’t all bad, but maybe there’s something to be said for being born into a historical moment when a whimsical king like frederick the great wants some of that enlightenment mojo and gets voltaire to just come and help him spend buckets of money erecting massive palaces of culture.  except for the lack of penicillin and decent sewage.)

for new countries like the US and canada, arguments had to be made for the importance of such institutions.  with museums and galleries the argument was somewhat easier—investing in material artefacts was an easier sell, since they’re less ephemeral.  investments could be amortized.  canada has had a national gallery since 1880.  but for live performance, especially theatre (which always had a whiff of the immoral about it) governments have been slower to bite. 

in fact, many of our publicly funded theatres through the years have been started as either entrepreneurial endeavours, and/or with initial investments from wealthy benefactors with a love for art, ROI be damned.  the massey family, for example, are responsible not only for creating massey hall but also hart house, one of the longest-running theatres in toronto.  the stratford festival started as an economic redevelopment initiative for an ailing railway town.  it wasn’t until the 1950s that the canada council was created, and the national arts centre wasn’t built until the late 1960s.


6.  the elites and their galas

“i think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV, and see a gala of a bunch of people, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough—i’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.”
(stephen harper, defending his government’s $45M cut to arts and culture funding at campaign stop in saskatoon, september 24 2014.)

perceived elitism is not so difficult to understand.  the most-cited barrier to participation in the culture track study was “it’s not for someone like me.”

when you think of opera-goers, the image that comes to mind is likely not an intercultural group of hip, young people in swoopy t-shirts.  they’re probably white, heterosexual, in their 50s or 60s, and wearing black tie with a glass of champagne in hand.  and it’s not a completely unfair stereotype.  but—it is not a bad thing that this demographic takes pleasure in attending the arts: in fact, it’s a great thing.  (at least somebody thinks benchmark arts are relevant to their lived experience.)

that the upper middle class finds value and meaning in what we do is no accident, either.  it’s a question of where we’ve directed our energies.  since the rise of international capitalism, and especially in the wake of the french revolution, artists attached themselves to the bourgeoisie.  at several points artists have even consciously created a divide between those with taste and the vulgar classes, increasing the value of art-as-commodity and arts attendance as social capital.  and it made good business sense, for a time: we invested our time and energy in building meaningful relationships with people who would invest in our sector and allow us to continue working.  we focused on creating personal value where it directly mattered to us.

for a long time, artists and politicians alike have operated under the premise that “highbrow culture” consumers act as social multipliers.  they tend to be politically-engaged centrists, fiscally conservative and socially liberal, likely to be a swing demographic, and highly networked.  here’s a link to an interesting analysis of this phenomenon, looking at how german politicians invest in opera when seeking re-election.  it seems to me that the arts sector has relied on this assumption as well, hoping that in seducing members of our upper classes, a growing upwardly-mobile middle class would appropriate their values and their buying habits.  it seems to have backfired.


7. articulating value

“what i never expected, in a lifetime in this field, is that with each passing year, no matter what you accomplish, or how many artists that you work with go on to do massively significant things, is that you will spend a very significant percentage of your personal time, and your professional time, defending why art matters in society and culture.  how many times can i invent new words to say the same damn thing?”
(kristy edmunds, curator for the center for the art of performance at UCLA in a 2014 interview on the “compared to what podcast”).

beyond an appeal to a class of taste-making multipliers, artists have also come up with a vast and inventive list of the various benefits the arts provide to society at large. 

frustrating though it may be for anyone who has had to squeeze out an “impact” statement at 11:38pm before submitting a grant, it’s actually not unreasonable that publicly funded institutions demonstrate value to society at large. 

throughout modernity, artists have generated a number of value-based justifications for support of the arts:

a) intrinsic
  • aesthetic: encounters with beauty improve the self
  • humane: the arts develop our empathetic capacity
  • aspirational: exposure to genius allows us to wonder at humanity’s achievements
  • spiritual: transcendent experiences help us generate meaning in existence
  • moral: the arts teach us to know right from wrong
b) instrumental
  • educational: the arts are a tool for public education
  • marxist: depicting social conditions as they truly are motivates change
  • activist: the arts are an effective tool of advocacy for marginalized experiences
  • nationalist: art creates narratives of national identity and strengthens society
  • economic: the cultural sector stimulates local economies and creates x dollars annually in GDP
c) institutional
  • humanist: artists advance culture and have a civilizing effect on society
  •  societal: coming together around a collective experience builds communities
  • (&c...)
the list is by no means exhaustive, and i have a range of feelings about different points on the list.  some of those points are really central to why i still work in theatre, others strike me as self-important or outright naive. 

but there’s a conspicuous and intentional absence on the list: pleasure.  perhaps more commonly known as ‘fun.’


8. the "crisis of legitimacy"

in his 2006 paper, cultural value and the crisis of legitimacy (pdf), john holden provides a useful framework for 3 categories of value:

intrinsic—relate to the subjective experience of culture, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually.  (section a of my above list)
instrumental—relate to the ancillary social & economic effects of culture.  (section b of my list).
institutional—relate to the processes, techniques, and experiences organizations pioneer and adopt. (section c).

these correspond to his three categories of stakeholders in the arts: the public, politicians & policy-makers, and professionals (john holden apparently appreciates alliteration as much as i do).
Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 10.52.13 PM.png

it’s notable that the institutional section of my list isn’t terribly flushed out.  it’s an underdeveloped aspect in public discourse of the value of the arts.  diane ragsdale, in her 2014 keynote for creative new zealand, transformation or bust (autoplays), elaborates on this crisis of legitimacy.

“we seem to be experiencing what chip ward calls the “tyranny of the quantifiable,” and what dougald hine calls “a crisis of measurement.” 

the arts are seeking legitimacy through primary and secondary effects, quantifiable metrics, when the greater value the arts offers is less direct, though no less important.  the case for intrinsic values having become passé, the arts have shifted to describing their instrumental values, and the question of institutional value† hasn’t been satisfactorily made.

† i’m actually not a big fan of the term ‘institutional’ value, and i suspect that john holden’s affinity for alliteration is clouding the core of what he’s trying to get here: that creative processes have a lot of value of their own.


9.  pleasure and guilt

artists have excluded pleasure from the forefront of their justifications for the social value of art and art institutions for so long that it seems to have been utterly forgotten.

i’m sure it has more than a little to do with what max weber assessed as “the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.”  in early protestantism, especially in puritanism (its more extreme british manifestation), pleasure was not just highly suspect, it was outright condemned.  many of the first colonizers to settle on the continent now known as north america were puritans, and viewed the theatre as inherently immoral. 

it was against this status quo that those who wanted to see live theatre began making many of the value-based arguments i listed above.  and gradually we became entrenched in them, and have been highly wary to return to the argument of pleasure. 

perhaps in the increasingly deregulated market there was also an assumption that if something was pleasurable enough it ought to be commodifiable for the masses, since value=demand.  or that it would at least have enough appeal in the private sector that the market would preserve it (i.e. through private sector funding).  so we have continued to make our argument to the state that we have some intrinsic moral quality, or instrumental economic function, since we have not had a great track record at creating widespread demand.

as we’ve stayed the course on those justifications, i’ve found myself feeling as though we are trying to force feed over-steamed broccoli to whatever unwitting public is foolish enough to come through our doors, wagging a finger at the populace saying “eat your vegetables! they produce empathy!”

and as we just saw with kathleen wynne’s recent rout, you can do as much good as you like to build a healthier society, but no one wants carrot sticks and hummus from a schoolmarm when you can get a buck-a-beer around the corner. 

even among my friends who don’t work in theatre (yep, i have a few, i think it’s healthy), when the subject of theatre comes up, the verb they use most to describe their relationship to theatre is ‘should.’  i.e. “i should go to more theatre but i just don’t have the time.”  or “i should go to more theatre but i don’t know what to see.”  or “i should go to more theatre but i just don’t.”  i’m not sure anyone should go to the theatre.  but i wish more people wanted to. 

because when it comes down to it, artists are not doing the work they do just because they think it has a moral value to society at large.  we’re not missionaries or charity workers.  most of us know that art—and especially live performance—is not a very efficient way to effect direct political change, advocate for marginalized identities, drive the economy, educate the public, or reform pathological narcissists.  nor do many of us have illusions that it’s a good get-rich-quick plan.  we’re in this line of work because somewhere, somewhere, we experienced the powerful pleasure that art can offer, to both audiences and makers of art.  because we built a meaningful relationship to art forms, art works, and artists. because we had a personal encounter with the arts that we actually enjoyed.  because it’s fun

(and i suspect we feel a bit guilty about this).


10. the changing landscape

“the fine arts are facing a society that is markedly different, and a consumer that is markedly different, from those faced 40 years ago—in the US this is due to cuts in funding for the arts in K-12 education, generational shifts and economic divides, increasing diversity in cities and towns across america, a trend towards anti-intellectualism, changing tastes and aesthetics, the culture wars, increased competition for people‘s leisure time (as a result of both many more direct and substitute competitors), urban sprawl, and the decline in the quality and quantity of arts coverage in the mainstream media.”
(diane ragsdale, in “surviving the culture change,” another of diane ragsdale’s brilliant keynote speeches)

in our strategic planning sessions here at stratford, something that has come up repeatedly in our environmental scans is an anxiety about the rise of digital media and dissemination.  many people have identified netflix & co. as competitors for our audience’s attention.  i’m not entirely sure that netflix is as big a competitor as we think.  people have had TVs for decades, and before streaming it was still easier to rent VHS tapes at blockbuster (RIP) than drive down the 401 to stratford.  people have had home-screen narrative experiences available since the 50s.

more importantly, i think that netflix is emblematic of the culture shift that has accompanied digitization, a trend toward ‘disrupting’ established industries (i.e. blockbuster) in favour of creating a new order of radically democratized start-ups that make use of crowdsourcing, and allow for more engaged personal participation.  where i suspect large institutions might be feeling a greater pinch is in what steven tepper calls “the curatorial me” and the development of personal brand, particularly through the culture we document ourselves consuming.‡ 

the result is that people are taking greater agency in selecting the culture they participate in.  they are looking for extraordinary experiences that can become part of how they represent themselves, and offer not just the cachet of exclusivity, but also create a sense of belonging to something larger.

both the farther-left and farther-right ends of the political spectrum share an anti-elitist ethic characteristic of populism.  our larger arts institutions are being caught up in the balkanizing campaigns of the (ongoing) culture wars, and maybe we’ve been betting on the wrong horse by investing so much energy into building relationships with the centrist multipliers that german politicians believe to be sitting at a performance of tosca right now.

just as people are losing faith in the workings of liberal democracy, it seems that the general public is less willing to implicitly trust the value of the cultural institutions liberal democracy upholds.  so how do we pivot?

‡ i expand on this in much more detail in the article from last year that i mentioned earlier.


11. the stats on fun

i’m going to come back to this frightening notion of ‘fun’ for a moment.  before we members of the highbrow arts sector start dismissing the canadian public as frivolous, vulgar, anti-intellectual philistines, it’s worth looking at the questions people were asked.

i think it’s important to note that “having fun” was one of the only two motivators on a list of sixteen options that did not fit into the categories of either intrinsic or instrumental value.  the other was “feeling less stressed” and it came in third place at 71% of respondents.

i’m pointing this out because i think it’s notable that respondents weren’t given options that included the words “pleasure” or “enjoy.”  “fun” in this case seems to be the catch-all option for “i participate in culture because i enjoy it.”

culture track provides a nice earnest attempt to break down what “fun” means for canadian cultural audiences (in case we arts leaders are struggling to wrap our heads around it).  “for cultural consumers, the top three characteristics of their ideal experience are “social,” “lively,” and “interactive”—indicating that a “fun” cultural experience is, at its core, participatory, dynamic, and rich in social connection.”  (for reference, the list of possible options was “virtual/digital, hands-on, interactive, social, immersive, personalized, lively, calm, active, reflective, intense, and other-please-specify.”)

finally, the report qualifies their finding by noting that “of course the definition of ‘fun’ is subjective for every individual ...”  take for example, yesterday’s strategic planning session. we were talking about how to change the public perception of stratford from ‘old, white, highfalutin’ to ‘accessible, hip, fun.’ 25 leaders and administrators from one of the country’s foremost theatres had a very lively, social, and interactive discussion about whether “highfalutin” was spelled with two o’s, two l’s, if it was a compound word, or if we should consider spelling it with a ph. (see, we can have fun too.)

funnily enough, strategic meetings and oh-god-next-season-is-way-over-budget meetings are where we laugh the most around here.  and i’m not being ironic about this: that kind of lively engagement is what happens when a group of people come together around a shared passion—it’s fun.


12.  "the tech lag"

“yet despite its ubiquity, the role of digital technology within the cultural sector continues to be one of the field’s most perplexing issues. in a moment of growing interest in (and funding for) increasingly high-tech digital solutions such as virtual reality or wearable technology, canadian audiences in 2018 remain relatively low-tech.”
(culture track canada)

the other significant piece of data in the culture track report is around integration of digital technologies.  only about a quarter of those surveyed indicated a desire for digital experiences at the centre of their cultural engagement.  nearly 40% preferred analogue experiences.  the rest didn’t have a preference. 

on top of that, those who did indicate an appetite for digital integration offered the following top 4 ways digital enriched their experience:
  1. access to more detailed info
  2. ability to revisit the experience later
  3. deeper understanding of the content
  4. makes activity feel new

those who preferred analogue experiences selected the following reasons for their preference:
  1. feels more authentic
  2. more focus on the activity
  3. more enjoyable
  4. is simpler


13. when even arts doubt the arts

i actually find all this data very hopeful.

i see that pleasure, enjoyment, and fun are big motivators.  when we aren’t utterly riddled with crippling self-doubt, we artists know a fair bit about how to have fun.

i see that live performance is not competing with the netflix market, and we’re still under the same old threats that came with the advent of cinema over a century ago.

i see that people look to cultural experiences for many of the exact things live performance does best: creating authentic, dynamic, engaging, social experiences.  what steven tepper would call a “bigger than me” experience.

i see that liveness is a potential antidote for digital alienation, but that digital media offer an opportunity to deepen the audience’s ancillary experience.

what all this points to for me is that a potential answer for the future of the arts sector lies not somewhere beyond our reach, but right at the core of what we do best. 

what i’ve been (very gradually) getting at with this whole piece, is that it seems that john holden’s ‘crisis of legitimacy’ runs deeper in the arts sector than is immediately apparent, causing us to doubt our processes and products on their own terms.§

so what is the way forward?

§ it’s worth noting that holden’s paper is from 2006, before social media and netflix gained their current monumental presence in our daily lives.


14.  the hardest sell

“there is a nervousness about art and culture in our political discourse that results from a democratic deficit.  ... the answer to the question ‘why fund culture?’ should be ‘because the public wants it.’”
(john holden, cultural value and the crisis of legitimacy (pdf)).

we’ve invested a good deal of time in convincing politicians, policy-makers, and private sector donors of the social and economic value of the cultural sector.  this is important work and must continue.  but the work that feels most essential to me right now is building meaningful, connected relationships with the public.

most discourse on audience development breaks down the tactics into 3 main categories:
  • deepening (strengthening relationships with existing audiences)
  • broadening (reaching out to people who are interested but experience practical barriers such as price, mobility, etc.)
  • diversifying (connecting with audiences who aren’t all that interested, who experience perceptual barriers; “it’s not for people like me” “i wouldn’t enjoy it” etc.)

all three of these are important, but i’m going to focus here on the latter.  it’s certainly the least efficient of all the strategies.  marketing wisdom estimates that it takes 5 times the resources to reach an unfamiliar (potential) audience member than it does to convert a one-time buyer into a returning customer. so the ROI is maybe not initially as high.  but the work of diversifying canadian theatre’s audience base and convincing the broader populace of our value is the most important work our sector can do if arts institutions are to survive.


15. trusting artistic process

“arts professionals are often accused of not running their operations like a business or of not understanding the bottom line. in fact, the artistic process is an endless series of unforgiving bottom lines. an 8:00 p.m. curtain is an unforgiving bottom line. so are the production budget, available artistic team and the production schedule. presenting art in front of an audience and critics is a particularly unforgiving bottom line.”
(arts action research, a NY-based arts think tank and consulting group, in a series of blog posts published under the heading “the elegant process”)

many of the most innovative corporations have moved from pyramidal, corporate organizational structures to borrowing creative, even artistic processes from our sector.  and yet in the 20th-century not-for-profit model arts organizations seem to attempt to demonstrate rigour and stability in institutional structures, which create departmental silos. 

a few things we could afford to bring into our institutional structures:

1 encourage cross-departmental collaboration.  innovation most often occurs at the boundaries between disciplines.  often the most exciting results i see in rehearsals come at the intersection between different experts’ work: projecting video on a moving set piece creates impossible magic, or a costume ignites an actor’s work because it creates limitations of movement and the character suddenly emerges.  in strategizing deepening, broadening, and diversifying audiences the collective genius is where the best ideas will come from.  education might spark an idea with digital media, a board member might find an opportunity with wardrobe—suddenly a gala is an open-invite costume ball, or an educational tool can become a relationship-building mini-series. 

2 leadership that focuses on synthesizing different points of view.  one of anita gaffney’s (stratford’s executive director) most shrewd choices in the strategic planning process has been to involve a substantial team of 25 members of the festival’s operating staff (the aforementioned collective who debated the spelling of hi-phallootin).  she sets the agenda, launches a conversation, listens a lot, and then returns to the next session with a sharp synthesis of the various ideas that emerged at the last session to push the process forward.

3 build a culture of R&D.  embrace failure as a chance to refine the idea.  a few years ago, while working on all’s well that ends well, i had a moment that i was really sure needed a remote control helicopter.  mary spyrakis, the endlessly brilliant props master at canadian stage had her team on the project from the first day of rehearsal, trying to figure out how to fly one through high park.  two helicopters were casualties, and our props budget was shrinking, but she pressed on.  finally, the day before first preview she came to me with helicopter number 3.  it would probably have been fine in an indoor theatre, but in a windy park there were just too many variables.  it wasn’t going to fly.  the bottom line loomed and we made a quick decision: “i don’t know, like, i guess just put it on the end of a stick and get the ASM to cross the stage with it and we’ll just play some absurdly loud chopper sounds?”  andrea baggs in a pilot’s headset with a helicopter on a stick was a hundred times funnier than a flying one would have been.  most first ideas aren’t going to work.  you might find that you’re accidentally engaging your target audience through an unexpected side project.  be dextrous, and prepared to pivot.


16. the engaged public

beyond emphasizing artistic process as part of how we structure our organizations internally, we need to see it as a valuable and valid way to connect with the public.  

rather than reproducing a producer / customer relationship within our institutions (i.e. “we have made you a product please consume it”), institutions need to be more rigorous about including the public in the way we work. 

as in many industries, there is real fear around the implications of radical democratization.  along with professional taxi-drivers and hoteliers, professional artists and critics fear being pushed out by ‘amateur’ engagement with the art.  with access to cost-efficient platforms for dissemination, more than ever before people are making their own music and films, self-publishing writing, and blogging their responses to work. 

rather than feeling threatened, arts institutions should be taking this as an exciting sign that the public is more engaged than they have since the last world war.  this is an energy we need to capture and run with—finally, the public want to be more than passive consumers of work.  and one of the things that institutions can do is gather these people together, and offer them a perspective of what this loos like on scale.

how can we structure our working models in a way that allow the public to feel involved in the creation of work?  how can we give them a glimpse of the artistic process?  how can our processes be opened to include the audience, and allow them to build a relationship with a work as it is created?  how can we make people hungry to engage with the product by giving them access and ownership to the work we do?

when we were writing the first grant for LULU, helen yung challenged me to think about what made the idea of creating that project at buddies so exciting. what’s buddies’ greatest asset?—an engaged, game, hungry, and thoughtful community.  what would it mean to create the piece not just for them, but with them?  some people followed the show through all its instalments, others dropped in for just one.  one audience member who came back through several instalments commented “it felt like i had access to a secret world i was re-encountering”—they felt a part of a community and a conversation that was evolving. buddies serves a specific constituency with a specific mandate, but i can't help but wonder: what would it would be like if every theatre's community was its greatest asset?

as an audience member, i’m deeply wary of participation in theatre—my worst nightmare is being “participated at,” when i feel like my involvement is meant to serve the performance, rather than the audience, and it feels like there’s a right answer or a wrong answer.  at the fever at luminato this year, i was dubious (ok maybe hostile).  i knew we were going to be asked to help perform the show, and i feared the dreaded “participation at.”  i spent most of the show trying not to get called on. obviously i got called on.  obviously if was for one of the biggest sections.  and in the end any initial quibbles i had about the show or the script became irrelevant, because running through a crowd in the dark with one of the performers leading me offered me a physical transformation.  my heart rate was up, it changed my relationship to space, i was sweating—it moved me, and asked me to invest, and the performers’ ask was focused on giving us ownership over the piece, not serving their ends—even though they were clearly guiding us somewhere.  and as the audience walked out after, they were praising each other—“i though you were so great.”

one of the things i find most hopeful in the dark world of social media clickbait is the love of the flashmob.  be it wedding proposals (autoplays), bhangra at a metro station (autoplays), or the austrian volksopera taking over a train station in vienna with the carmina burana (autoplays).  i don’t think it’s just the element of surprise, or the change of location—it speaks to a yearning for moments of collective creation, something bigger than the individual, the moments when art engages a whole community.


17. civic spaces

“what if art centers everywhere understood their mandate to be: ‘ignite the public imagination of your community’?”
(deborah cullinen, CEO of yerba buena centre for the arts, in a medium article titled “what if arts centres existed to promote radical citizenship?”)

a question that comes up often in my collaborations with susanna fournier is “what is the theatrical contract with this piece?”  audience members joining an arts event enter into a kind of mock-up of a social contract: what behaviours they are prepared to adopt in return for certain protections and experiences. 

in many ways the rehearsal process and the performance event create their own micro-societies, with decision-making structures, communal goals, and an order to everyone is included and where they fit into the collective.  one of theatre’s pleasures has always been in its ability to offer a subversive space for an alternate form of civic participation, building temporary communities that establish shared processes. 

theatre’s stakes are usually extremely high, but they’re also imaginary, which makes it an ideal space for unpacking important, high stakes problems of who we want to be as a culture, and how our personal and political values intersect. 

western theatre’s civic-political function dates to its inception in ancient athens, when the core scene of the drama was the agon—argument, struggle, contest—between the two main characters, i.e. when kreon and antigone have their scene.  a comedian like molière enjoyed a kind of fool’s license in france as one of the only people in the state who could (mostly) get away with criticizing louis xiv.

if we’re going to make an argument to the public and to politicians & policy makers for the continued support of and even existence of larger arts institutions, we need to make an effort to blow open our doors and make our buildings civic spaces for public engagement. 

in germany (ok i know, but guys i made it this far only mentioning germany once or maybe 1.5 times if you count frederick the great so indulge me¶), the state theatres are fundamentally that.  artistic directors are government-appointed, and theatres belong to the city and/or province.

in 2012, when armin petras left the maxim gorki theater to take over the theatre in stuttgart, the berlin cultural senator made the inspired choice of shermin langhoff and jens hillje to succeed him.  together, they had been running an indie theatre in kreuzberg as a post-migrant theatre and they brought that mandate to a state theatre right on unter den linden. 

under their tenure the gorki has become a critical gathering place for berlin’s rapidly-growing migrant population.  not only are half the acting ensemble non-german, they host debates, culturally-focused festivals, throw parties, and while i was there in june for their ‘pugs in love’ queer weekend they had a barbecue and screened the world cup game in the kantine.  they also threw a killer new year’s party last year and we watched the fireworks from the rooftop while a dj alternated between balkan music, turkish music, and deep dirty german electro.  the gorki has become a vital centre for civic participation, and is actively engaged in anti-AFD art projects and advocacy.  but it has taken vigorous outreach, meticulous relationship-building with a generally disinclined target public, and an ongoing interrogation of ‘who are we doing this for?’ to maintain the success of this mandate.

¶ ok i miscounted i talked about it in the introduction too but really all things considered i’ve done pretty well.


18. codes of conduct

“if we want to keep theatre alive and keep our patrons, as well as attract new ones—old and young, white and “of color”—we can’t be afraid to push our older white patrons past their comfort levels and dismantle their supremacist and privileged worldviews, not just onstage, but in the culture of theatre that we are creating.  we need to say that, just like in church, you are welcome to come as you are in the theatre. hoot and holler or sit quietly in reverence. worship and engage however you do.”
(NY playwright dominique morrisseau, in an article for american theatre called “why i almost slapped a fellow theatre patron and what that says about our theatres” that was widely shared in 2015)

the other day i passed by a woman with some kids (i assume her grandchildren) making sure their cell phones were turned off.  the kids were dressed up in some secular version of what may once have been called their sunday best.  there was nothing aggressive or strict in her delivery, but it served as a reminder of the complex social codes that have evolved around theatre attendance in the west. 

almost daily in the show reports here we hear about patrons who exit the theatre before intermission who refuse to wait in the seats we’ve reserved for re-entries in the back row, rushing past ushers to their seats.  they're not playing by our rules. 

part of me is very much of the “what’s the big deal?” mindset—after all, shouldn’t we be thrilled to be bringing people in who might be unfamiliar with the rules of the theatre?  they could have paid a lot for those tickets.  and shouldn't we cultivate theatre spaces that people feel ownership over?  and isn’t part of the act of entering into the theatrical contract negotiating coexisting with a whole auditorium full of other humans?

the question also brings to mind the primary perceptual barrier to cultural attendance: “it’s not for people like me.”

on the other hand, every time i’m teching a show and the question of cuing the cell phone announcement comes up i’m irritated—shouldn’t people just know better?  and most directors  i know wouldn’t want a lobby door opening and flooding the theatre with light during a moment of silence and low light that we fastidiously teched to be magical and transportive. 

but if stratford is to break through 500K tickets a year, we’ve got to make our theatres more welcoming to those who experience perceptual barriers around attendance, and decodify our spaces from the white bourgeois status quo.  certainly a big barrier for BIPOC audiences is not seeing themselves represented on stage (culture track reports 65% will stay away for this reason), and progress is gradually being made in this area, but a larger shift in the audience culture we foster is essential to giving a broader demographic a sense of ownership over our spaces.


19. "radical hospitality"

so how do we reconcile these two competing questions?  can we avoid greeting new audience members with a laundry list of do-nots while still ensuring our audiences who have internalized those codes for years aren’t angered to the point of writing yet another etiquette article?  can we dismantle the bourgeois, white hegemony of our cultural spaces without alienating the demographic that actually seems committed to us?

i myself have been a violator of these elaborate codes, even as someone who comes from a privileged enough upbringing to have learned them very early.  and i suspect feeling like i knew how to belong in these spaces had a lot to do with choosing to spend my life working in them.

one of the few operas i’ve actually really enjoyed was calixto bieito’s stuttgart production of der fliegende holländer.  a short-list of things onstage: a rubber dinghy, a doghouse entering on 3 pairs of showgirl legs, 16 refrigerators filled with meat, plastic babies, pearls, and champagne, 32 blonde wigs, a strobelight orgy consisting of 70+ people, 9 smashed computer screens, and a naked dude standing stock-still in the middle.”  bieito is like the pedro almodovar of opera, big, queer, campy spanish provocateur.  and the most surreal thing about it was the audience, and their disapproval of my laughter and engagement. i was wearing jeans and a tshirt, while everyone else had come in hardcore black tie.  i laughed through the whole thing—yes it was very serious wagner music but it was a wild staging.  and not a single other opera goer laughed.  if i weren’t so resiliently committed to theatre, i think the audience’s attempt to shame my ‘disruptive’ behaviour might have made me think twice about re-engaging.

diane ragsdale offers the idea of “practicing radical hospitality” as a possible answer.  steward all patrons through the experience.  “if we want to reach non-traditional audiences, then i believe we need to consciously practice radical hospitality in four areas: where the art happens, what’s programmed, how much we charge, and how we approach people to tell them about our work.” 

now, this may come as a shock, but i don't spend a lot of time going to sports games.  in fact, i think i was five the last time i had a ticket to a professional sport-something-something.  i would even go so far as to say "i'm not the sort of person who goes to sports things."  maybe the second thing i would say is "it's not worth the price." 

luckily for pro sports, they're not suffering from an audience problem.  but if they were, i wonder what they would have to do to get me in there?  reduce my perceptual barriers.  use outreach to make it seem less intimidating.  show me other art-fags enjoying it.  build relationships with people in my community who love it and can advocate for it—i trust word-of-mouth from people i know above all else.  prime me to understand the rules (i still don't understand how football gets scored).  do something to reduce my perception that a bro-culture i want nothing to do with dominates those spaces.  help me find my way to the event, through the event, and if i really liked it, give me some ways to engage with it after—maybe somewhere i could follow up on who the people were who did the sports-thing and how they got to where they are, and also how good baseball players look in those pants.  facilitate me developing a relationship to it, on my terms.  more than anything, make it seem like something other people like me are really enjoying, that i'm missing out on.  it's not as far-fetched, ridiculous, or impossible as it might initially sound.  and if they were facing extinction, it would be worth the work to extend their reach beyond their diehard loyalists.

another example of radical hospitality is the emergence of “relaxed performances,” which stratford and many other organizations have taken on in recent years.  they are not money makers—prices are reduced, and they may not sell as well as our usual matinees.  other patrons may be wary about attending these shows.  but there is a less measurable, qualitative value that they offer—they bring new people through our doors, they allow us to form partnerships with new organizations, and they create individual meaning for families and caregivers who are happy to see their loved ones thought of in the daily operations of a public institution.

in comparison to the wagner, stratford’s production of rocky horror has been pivotal in the audience shifting their behaviours.  already the title carries with it a different kind of cult expectation in audiences.  but i wasn’t so sure the stratford production could carry it.  donna feore has worked with FOH and digital media to create some playful short lobby videos (i’m pretty sure they also go out in the pre-email).  they help set up some terms of engagement (discouraging toast-throwing at live actors) and teach them donna’s variation on time warp.  donna’s audience plants help to rev up call-outs from anyone who might know them—and lots do. 

but the audience are stepping up their game too—i’m seeing tons of middle-aged dudes in full drag and fishnets, and you can always tell when rocky has played from the boa debris wafting through market square.  it’s exciting to see the audience taking ownership over a stratford theatre in a way i’ve never witnessed before.  it feels like their space, and they have dismantled the codes (with some encouragement from us).  and it’s not disturbing our traditional audiences either: my mom sat behind a ninety-year-old white woman at a preview who got up after and said it was the most fun she’d ever had in a theatre.  in 90 years, that’s something.

20. cultivating demand

“we believe that culture precedes change. indeed, the great societal strides — those that have produced positive and powerful forward movement — have inevitably resulted from some cultural shift, a momentous collective motion that sparks the public imagination and builds a kind of energy that cannot be diverted or denied.”
(deborah cullinen, “what if arts centres existed to promote radical citizenship?”)

the interesting thing about the current cultural shift we are facing is that it wasn’t led by the cultural sector—rather by a tech sector who adopted creative process to produce the tools and techniques of the new culture.  it has left us scrambling to keep up and fearful of its implications.  it has birthed new economic paradigms and whole new modes of human interaction.  the traditional relationships upon which we have relied have suddenly acquired new etiquette.  (these days it’s polite to text before you call so that colleagues don’t have the immediacy of your realtime presence inflicted upon them.) 

sure, to some extent, it’s made narcissistic selfie-chasing monsters of us.  in an ever more polarizing culture, the media one consumes and one’s likes and dislikes have become tied to personal brand and even identity.  whole industries of organized labour have been disrupted and replaced by draconian open-sourced services that bypass long fought-for collective agreements.  the internet is the new wild west, such deregulated stuff as margaret thatcher’s wet dreams are made on. 

but——. it’s also created a means of developing and strengthening relationships like never before.  it’s created new generations of consumers and cultural participants who want more than to just be marketed at.  we want to be actively involved, we want to know a brand or institution’s values and mission, and aligning themselves with those missions becomes a part of how we identify ourselves. 

rather than fear the spectre of the digital revolution as disastrous for the live arts, we should seize on it as the opportunity we’ve been waiting for since the advent of cinema and mass-production.  digitization represents a chance for the arts sector to actively connect with the public and rigorously promote our institutional value. 

the pendulum may initially have swung hard toward me-centred experiences, but it’s swinging back to bigger than-me experiences.  there is a craving for authenticity; for artisanal, hand-crafted, GMO-free, grass-fed communal experiences with culture that capitalize on liveness, interactivity, and our ability to offer cultural spaces as places of belonging. 

the greatest advantages digital media offer us are aligned with the ones the public craves: deeper, richer experiences, easier access to tickets, and new ways to participate.  we have the tools now, more than ever, to design events and experiences, rather than just delivering productions as product.  we have the ability to shift the status quo of how audiences expect to enter our spaces and engage with them. 

there is no one size-fits all approach to creating meaning and engagement with an untapped audience.  it takes thoughtfully targeted outreach, and relationships can only be built one at a time.  for most of the industrial age, relationship-building with the public was not efficient, and we have relied instead on politicians and multipliers.  it still isn’t our most efficient means, but organizations now have the ability co-ordinate and collaborate on audience-building efforts with hitherto unimaginable efficiency, share resources to create large-scale works, and connect with touring partners.  it will only work in canada if it is a sector-wide, cross-disciplinary, collective effort.  we have the potential to organize conversations and mobilize networks to activate emergent movements. 

but in practicing radical hospitality, embracing our role as civic spaces, improving access, and decodifying audience behaviours, there’s another critical shift arts organizations need to make.  we need to make sure that we balance organizational inclusivity with a perception of exclusivity.  we need to manifest ourselves in the world as sexy, fun, subversive spaces.  spaces where all are welcome, but if you don’t come you’ll regret missing out.  this key ingredient is how we create audience desire, hunger for the work we do.  for too long we’ve sat like desperate dates, texting back too quickly, killing the mystery with our eager over-availability.  how each organization manifests this in the world extends beyond some graphic design and lobby music—it’s in the entire public presence of the institution.  we need to start acting like we’ve got something to offer, build relationships we can trust, and in a certain regard, make the public want to come to us.  if this sounds like a contradiction to everything else i’ve said, it is.  and it’s on arts leaders to find a way to embrace this contradiction, cause otherwise nobody’s going to be calling on saturday night.

none of this will be easy.  we’ve been complicit in constructing some of the perceptual barriers that are keeping the audiences we need away.  and as owais lightwala commented at the canadian summit for the arts, we need to be honest that we need them more than they need us.  now it is incumbent upon us to dismantle these barriers.  shifting operations and processes will be a gradual transition—disruption might work in the tech sector but the free-market isn’t kind to public arts institutions.  careful, deliberate steps must be taken.  organizational change requires not only opportunity and incentive, but also capacity, which must be cultivated organically.

“taking artistic risks, increasing attendance, fostering access, improving quality, deepening engagement, and hitting earned and unearned income targets do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.  we can kid ourselves into thinking that we can pursue these goals simultaneously and without compromise, by separating into different departments the functions of making the art, selling the tickets, raising money, balancing the budget educating patrons, and understanding the community, but the compartmentalization of mission is only a short term alleviation of the genuine philosophical struggle to reconcile these competing goals.  and prioritizing and balancing these goals is only likely to get more difficult, given the current economic climate.”
(diane ragsdale, “surviving the culture change”)

i like a good puzzle.  this might even be fun.


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